Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Fifty Eight

The euphoria didn't last long. It never does. There's the roller coaster ride to the top of the drop, and the either the fast descent straight down, or the twisting, turning descent that brings you to the same place. In our case it was almost an immediate descent.

Monday, I turned up at Accipiter to meet with Susan. There I discovered we had a new sponsor.

"Underwood is just too busy to work with us on a daily basis, so he has assigned Chad Gillette to work with us. Chad is a good guy, one of Jim's guys, and Jim has assured me that he understands the importance of this effort."

That lurch in my stomach was the first car going over the lip of the descent. We hadn't really started and already there were changes. No matter how close a relationship, no matter how well communicated, Chad would want to place his stamp on the work. It would be another few weeks before we sized each other up and got working in earnest.

Susan recognized my discomfort and added "Look, it's not what I had hoped for, but we have momentum and the opportunity to build a real innovation program. Let's see what Chad has to say."

"In my experience" I said "we need to keep the channels open to Brockwell and Underwood. Those two have given us the vision, and regardless of Chad's responsibilities on this project, we need to set the expectation that we want to meet with Brockwell and Underwood regularly."

Susan frowned but said nothing. There was no way I was going to allow the reporting structures and politics get in the way of achieving what Brockwell and Underwood wanted, because it seemed that everyone else had a different perspective or intent for our project.

We met Chad later that morning. Chad, on the whole, was a bright, earnest young guy, a fast climber who had impressed Brockwell with his hard work and smarts. Chad was a fairly newly minted MBA, which meant in my book that he knew a little about a lot of things, and practically nothing about actual work. Given that he was a finance major and worked in finance, that just compounded the issues in my head. I was convinced all Chad was going to worry about was the money. Boy, was I wrong.

After the usual pleasantries, Susan and I set out an ambitious plan to build an innovation team, encourage incremental and disruptive innovation throughout the organization and start building innovation communities by training high potential people in the organization. It was a very carefully designed program, one she and I had been building for months in anticipation of the approval from Brockwell and Underwood. I made sure to impress upon Chad that Brockwell and Underwood were supportive of our plans and the goals of innovation.

Once we finished our presentation, Chad had a few questions.

"What's it going to take to accomplish all of this work? How quickly can we get some new ideas into the product development pipeline?"

I liked what I was hearing so far. Speed and urgency are so important in an innovation program. Let's get going while we have the ear of the CEO and some momentum.

"We can start generating ideas in specific product groups in just a few weeks" I said. "Clearly we won't have a chance to train the teams on innovation processes, but Susan and I can work with them to identify key opportunities and issues and start generating ideas."

"Great. Do you think we can have new products in the pipeline so we can get budgets in place during the annual planning cycle?"

The annual planning cycle, that recurring monster better known to innovation experts as the idea killing process. Perhaps as welcoming to innovation and new ideas as a place of execution, a place where great ideas went to die. Every large business basically shuts down to re-enact the development of next year's plan, which comprises a set of presentations where the numbers move slightly from last year's plan. A rigid, microscopically managed process with no ambiguity and no room for error.

"Yes, but I think we'll need to consider how to acquire funds for the idea within the annual plan, as well as outside the plan. Our experience is that new ideas seldom have much success in an annual planning cycle. Additionally, we may have good ideas that should be launched before the planning cycle, and may need to find the funds for those ideas instead of waiting for the plan."

You'd have thought I'd questioned the validity of the Black-Scholes equation or burned a tract on financial theory of markets to see the disbelief in his eyes. There was no consideration for funding outside of the annual plan from his perspective. And that's the way the rest of the morning progressed. We'd recommend changes to the way Accipiter worked, to further an innovation goal, and he'd reinforce the existing processes. What I came to discover, very quickly, that while he was in finance, he was actually much more invested in the existing processes and methods. He understood the need for innovation and different results, he just didn't seem to understand that new thinking and new ideas might require different processes, people with new skills and changes in the way Accipiter worked.

It was odd to see such attachment to a dysfunctional corporate process and culture by someone who had not served much time within Accipiter. From a corporate lifer I would have expected the adherence to the existing order, but not from a fresh-faced MBA. Yet Chad battled us on every recommendation, trying to water down our approach and align the approach to existing methods and processes, intent on keeping the work as close to what Accipiter already did as possible.

By the end of our first meeting I'd reached the bottom of the roller coaster. My stomach didn't lurch so much as heave. Just on the brink of success, we were being pulled back into the existing order. Even though we had open channels to Brockwell, I didn't think it would matter. One of us would have to go. Either Accipiter wanted to move forward with innovation, and was willing to change, or Accipiter wanted to act interested in innovation while reinforcing the status quo. I wasn't going to stick around for the second option, and Chad seemed unwilling to commit to the first. I wondered why Chad, and several other executives before him, were so wedded to the current structures and so afraid of change.

At the end of a completely frustrating meeting, where Chad and I had increasingly talked past each other, and both recognized the futility of further discussions without clear direction from the top, we broke the meeting. Susan had been relatively quiet for a while and had a pensive look on her face.

"OK, we go back to Brockwell and tell him the fair haired boy doesn't see eye to eye with him, and find another person."

She shook her head, not saying no, just in resignation and disbelief.

"I didn't realize how powerful the status quo really is, and how difficult introducing innovation as a sustaining capability was going to be."

It's not a hopeless cause, I thought, but we need a burning platform to get the company's attention.

"What would draw significant attention to this issue and get everyone on board?" I asked.

"I've been thinking about that myself. Perhaps we should pull in Mr. Kasamis."

"Doug Kasamis, the chairman?"

"Yes, he was the founder and a real entrepreneur. He is still very respected within the organization. If we can get him as a spokesperson, if he is willing, he could rally most of the organization to a significant change."

We knew what to do. Meet with Underwood and Brockwell, explain the gravity and urgency of a clearly communicated message, and recommend that we deploy the heavy guns.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Fifty Six

Life is full of false peaks. Just as you scale those final few feet, ready to plant your flag at the top of the mountain, you realize there's another peak ahead. All the work you do merely positions you - gives you the right - to attack the next peak.

We'd been to the mountain, and in some ways the mountains had come to us. Now we were confronted with the actual work - creating and executing a plan that would make Accipiter more innovative. It was at once an overwhelming and exhilarating task. Susan seemed a bit stunned by the meeting, and I was chomping at the bit, ready to go.

All Brockwell wanted at this point was a logical plan, and fortunately I could pull samples of work we'd done and the plans that supported that work off the shelf. I had come somewhat prepared, assuming our next step would be to develop the plan to ask for the necessary resources. Susan and I sat down side by side at the conference table once Underwood departed. She seemed a bit out to sea.

"I'm not really sure where to start" she said. "There's so much to do. What should we do first?"

If there's one thing I think I'm good at, it's cutting through all the fluff to get to the heart of the issue.

"Look, nothing really matters until we develop a plan and cost that plan out for Underwood and the executives. We need to focus our attention on developing the plan that outlines how we make Accipiter more innovative, and cost out the effort. That's all we need to focus on over the next few days. Fortunately I've got some plans we've used with other clients in similar situations. What we'll need from you are the internal costs, especially in terms of resources."

Susan warmed to the task immediately. I've found that innovation work can be daunting, especially since there are so many ambiguities and gray areas within the work. Helping a client find the bedrock tasks and focusing them on these familiar actions is the best way to get started.

"OK. What do we need to do to modify these plans?"

"One of the first things we need to do is set up a couple of interviews with Brockwell, Underwood, and the other business line leaders. If we are going to implement an innovation program, we want to get their input as to the shape, size and scope of the program. Should we be focusing on disruptive innovations or incremental innovations? Should we create external innovation communities or rely on internal insights? Should we innovate existing products or create new products and markets? We need to gain a good understanding from them about how innovation supports their strategies, and how much risk and change they are willing to introduce. In my experience, it may be difficult to get this from them, so we may have to work up a draft outline of the program and have them say grace over it."

"All right, that makes sense. I think it will be difficult to get a clear picture of the strategies from them, but we can do our best. What else?"

"Once we understand or at least document a strategic scope for the innovation program, we can estimate the size of the team necessary to support our efforts, and begin to define the people we'll need on a part-time and full-time basis for our project team. That will include you and me, and Underwood as the executive sponsor, an HR person, a communications person and probably three to five representatives from the various business lines."

"I've already spoken to George about the communications person. It was clear to me that we'd need help active communicating our goals and the intent of the program. After our talk with George and Jim, George asked me to speak with the VP of HR, and we've identified a person in her organization who can assist us with the project."

"OK, then we need to identify a couple, probably no more than five, people, who can work with us and represent the various insights and interests of the organization from the various business lines or product lines. Best to ask for volunteers."

"Why volunteers? Why not simply have their managers assign a person?"

"A couple of reasons. First, regardless of the assignment, the folks we get are going to keep their hands in their "day jobs" because this project won't occupy them forever. They'll want to keep current in their regular jobs even if their commitment to us is 80-90%. Since they are going to be continuing some involvement in their regular jobs, I want people on the team who are willing to work extra hours because they believe in change and innovation. It's tough enough to implement any change, but the kinds of change we'll create will take real passion. People who get assigned to this will look at it as just another task on their plate. I want more than that - I want the malcontents and true believers. They are the ones who will be here late, and won't get disappointed or frustrated when we encounter setbacks."

Susan seemed unsure of my staffing philosophy. "It's not that I disagree with your approach" she said "but the managers may have a lot of concern about their staff volunteering themselves for extra work. After all, they do have a business to run."

"Yep, and you've pointed out another reason I want volunteers, and we need to reserve the right to accept or reject people from the team. This project is too important to be a dumping ground for people who aren't cutting it or up to snuff, or who don't believe in this work. We need, as much as possible" I said this waving my hands, trying to tamp down the fires" to make this an elite, conspicuous team. If this becomes just another "flavor of the month" team, everyone will recognize it for what it is and ignore us."

"With the strategic framework in mind, and the resources identified, I suppose we build a project plan next?"

"Yes, and that will help us arrive at some cost estimates for Brockwell."

"We've got until Friday. Let's get to work."

From altitude to bedrock in just over an hour. Now it was time to start climbing the next mountain.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Fifty Six

Six am on a Monday. The sky still pitch black, at least the sliver I can see from my window. The alarm is insistent, my head is pounding and there's a cottony desert in my mouth. It appears that two wrongs don't make a right after all.

Confounded by the mixture of apprehension and elation. Filled with questions - what if, what if. Head aching, stomach churning. And I still am in a horizontal position, with one eye fixed on the clock. Six oh one.

In my mind's eye I could see Brockwell, who probably sprang out of bed at 4am each workday morning to sweat to the oldies on his elliptical machine, and was bright eyed and ready to go at the office by 5am. Even now he was sitting at his desk, planning his day, consulting his calendar. Preparing for our meeting. Hale and hearty, in fighting trim. The mind reels.

Somehow I managed to take a long cold shower, which relieved my head and jumpstarted my heart. Dry toast, bitter yesterday coffee from the bottom of the pot and a rumbled black suit. At 6:45 I took one last glance around the apartment, grabbed my keys and left, headed out to a celebration or an execution. Moving down the hallway to the stairwell I thought of Sean Penn in that movie. Dead man walking. Maybe so.

I can't say I remember the drive to Accipiter. It was cool that morning and the traffic wasn't too bad. I actually arrived early - a first for me. By the time I got to the parking lot I had settled down, ready to plunge in or back away, promising myself that if Brockwell managed to create yet another excuse for putting off the project I was going to immerse myself in the projects that Meredith and Matt had underway and leave Accipiter to its own devices.

At 7:15 there was no one at the main reception, so I rang Susan and got her voicemail, then settled in to wait for Susan or Brockwell, or the reception team. Promptly at 7:30 Brockwell himself turned the corner, called me over and started back down the hallway. As we walked together, my stomach began to lurch again. I was expecting the worst. Susan had not come to greet me.

"I did a lot of thinking over the weekend, Sam" and I felt a cool sweat break out on my forehead. "This innovation effort isn't easy." Still non-committal.

"It never is, but it is usually worth the effort" I said, with a grin that started and ended at my lips. The eyes, cheeks and forehead had already surrendered. I probably looked like a death mask, but couldn't make eye contact.

"Yes, well that's what I wanted to talk with you about. How much effort will be involved to create an innovation team and spark some real innovation here at Accipiter? Jim and I talked over the weekend and we are both convinced that Accipiter needs innovation as a core capability. We simply can't survive in our market without a radical increase in new products and services."

This wasn't the music I had expected to hear. Rather than a sweet sad melody, I was getting Happy Days are here again. But I know enough to never interrupt an executive when he or she is expounding on their own vision.

"We've decided to make this a strategic focus this year. Jim will ask the board to approve several new positions and we'll find the funding for a significant investment in consulting time. We understand this is a big change and we want to do it the right way - and come out of the effort with the skills and knowledge, and cultural change - to innovate well into the future. You look a little pale. Feeling OK? Want a glass of water?"

No. I was feeling fine. In fact, never better.

Susan met us in the conference room, clearly excited but strangely subdued as well. Brockwell opened the discussion.

"I've told Sam about our intentions to make innovation a strategic priority this year." He glanced at Susan, who met his eyes and nodded. "The two of you need to give me a plan by the end of the week we can take to the board, to approve any new headcount and funding. I want a three year plan. Our goal is to create within Accipiter a culture that support and expects innovation, and a team that is responsible for managing innovation across the organization."

"Can we get time with you and other executives to define the scope of the effort, to ensure we have good estimates about the costs and investments?"

"I can give you time, and I suggest you talk with several of the business unit heads, Fred Phillips in particular. From reading your previous work for Accipiter I found that you suggest including human resources in this type of effort."

It was a statement framed as a question, so I simply nodded.

"OK, then I'll clear it with Marjie that you can get time on her calendar this week. Speed is of the essence. Interview the people you can, and document your assumptions if you believe information is missing. I need that project plan and estimate on my desk by end of day Friday so we can present it to the board. If you are in doubt, estimate upwards, don't be conservative. We'll manage the costs downward later. Any questions?"

None from my side. I was ready to get started. I knew that Susan had one.

"I'm in a strange situation. I report to Bill. Has he OK'd my involvement?"

"Actually, for the next few months you'll report dotted line to me. We believe that this effort will need a committed head of innovation, and this is your chance to audition for the role. Do well, and it will likely be yours." He left the alternative unsaid, but it hung there.

It would make for some uncomfortable hallway meetings I was sure, but Susan had gotten what she wanted. Now the question was - could we make Accipiter an innovation success?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Fifty Five

The weekend past in a blur of anticipation. The clock couldn't move fast enough, the days seemed to drag along. Even the attractions of sunny southern California didn't hold much appeal. I longed to be walled up in a noiseless, sterile conference room, surrounded by executives in suits making decisions about the future of their company. June called on Saturday and I took her to a prefunctory dinner, and we went dancing, but my head and my heart were elsewhere. She could tell that I was disengaged but I doubt she would have realized that it was Accipiter, and not another woman, that occupied my brain cycles.

As I walked her to her door, she turned and said "I hope she's good to you. I won't play one of those Hollywood heroines and tell you I'll always be here for you."

I put my hand on her door and closed it before she made the rapid getaway.

"We've meant something to each other for a long time" I said. "There's no other woman in my life right now. I'm just really occupied with a potential new client and trying to reason out the best way, no, the right way to do the work. It's been haunting me all weekend. I'm like the greyhound in the box, eyes on the rabbit but the bell hasn't rung yet. All nervous energy and playing out a bunch of scenarios in my mind. I'm sorry I wasn't the best date tonight. I know it and if you'll let me, I'll make it up to you."

She looked at me, not really buying the story entirely but seeing the truth that was in at least part of it. I knew then she was a terrific woman and I should make the right moves here and focus my attentions for at least a few hours on my personal life, rather than become so overwhelmed with Accipiter that I lost myself in my work.

"Can I buy you a drink?" I said, hoping she would ask me in for a nightcap.

"Sam, not tonight. If what you say is true, then give me a call when you are ready to focus on me, on us. I think I believe you, but I need to see more from you than an hour or two. Good luck with the new client" emphasis on client "and when you've decided that I'm as important as some company, then give me a call. Maybe I'll answer."

With that she glanced at my hand on her door, which slid away and she slipped into her apartment, without a glance back at me. I'd managed, in less than a few weeks, alienate my partner, my co-workers and my sometimes girlfriend all to win a new client that I wasn't even sure I wanted. The work was almost too personal.

I relieved my sorrow in the usual way, one shotglass at a time that evening and slept in on Sunday. The hours seemed to tick by even more slowly, so I left the apartment and went to the office, to catch up on all the work I'd left undone during the Accipiter sales efforts. Yet at the office I was unable to concentrate, still spinning the Accipiter opportunity around in my mind. Forms, bills, receipts were scattered around my desk representing tens of thousands of billings, but I could not help but play out all the alternative outcomes for Accipiter. I could imagine arriving on Monday to be told that over the weekend, Underwood and Brockwell had had second thoughts and were postponing the project, or that the board had decided to halt the project and hire a big name consulting firm to examine the strategic consequences of innovation and report back in six months. There were so many opportunities for any innovation project to go astray, and so few chances for one to succeed. I had a lot tied up in this one, and it had me tied up as well.